Continuing to take a closer look at some of the amazing tracks to be found on the career-spanning 4CD Rhino box set, ARETHA that I co-produced with Patrick Milligan, I’m turning the spotlight on Aretha’s 1966 demo of “Try A Little Tenderness,” one of several tracks she sent to Jerry Wexler after signing with Atlantic as a prelude to her first recording session for the label in January 1967…

Aretha has signed on the dotted line on November 21st, 1966 and she’s now an Atlantic recording artist after a six-year tenure with Columbia Records which has helped create an audience for her but not provided her with the kind of impact that many of her peers have had on the R&B charts or outside the U.S.  She has big hopes that Atlantic Records, already home to the likes of Solomon Burke, Ben E. King, Wilson Pickett, Barbara Lewis, Esther Phillips and, by association with Stax Records, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Carla Thomas and other Memphis hitmakers.

After conversations with Jerry Wexler, the executive who has wisely initiated the contract with Aretha, she’s back at home in Detroit, putting together some demos of a range of material that showcases the diversity of her artistry.  A now-famous tape box simply marked ‘Jerry Waxler (sic)’ and the name and address of Aretha’s then-husband/manager Ted White, 1721 Field, Det[roit] contains (14) songs. To this day, I remain thrilled that during my research for Rhino Records in 2005, I discovered the tape box hidden away on a shelf in the vast Warner vaults…

The recordings sound like a session cut live at home with Aretha at piano, a drummer and a bass player and includes run throughs of “Dr. Feelgood” and “I Never Loved A Man” which Aretha will record for her first all-important Atlantic LP debut at sessions in January and February 1967 as well as a finger-snappin’ take on Sam & Dave’s “Hold On I’m Coming” that is truly groove-a-licious: she will eventually record the song many years after signing with Arista Records in 1980 and win a Grammy with it into the bargain!

Giving producer Wexler an idea of possible musical directions for her initial Atlantic sessions and likely to indicate the kind of material she’s been performing at nightclubs and occasional jazz festivals in the years prior, Aretha decides to revisit some of the songs that have formed part of the over one hundred recordings that she’s cut for Columbia between 1960-1965. In addition to the Van McCoy-penned “Sweet Bitter Love” (which Aretha will record again in 1985 for her platinum-plus Arista LP, “Who’s Zoomin’ Who”), originally a 1965 Columbia 45, there’s Aretha’s new take on “Try A Little Tenderness.”

The song dates back to 1932 and was already a standard by the time Aretha first records it thirty years later for her third Columbia LP, 1962’s “The Tender, Moving, Swinging Aretha Franklin,” an album she will reveal in interviews decades later is one of her favourites from her Columbia days.  “Try A Little Tenderness” is released as a single in August 1962 as the ‘B’ side to “Just For A Thrill” and manages to get sufficient radio airplay to make it to No. 100 on the US pop charts. 

In 1966, Otis Redding records “Try A Little Tenderness” (turning into a pop and R&B hit in early 1967) and when asked, he says that Aretha’s 1962 version provided inspiration for his choice to cut the song himself.  Aretha’s fondness for the song is reflected in her own choice to include it as part of the presentation of material to Jerry Wexler and while she doesn’t record it again for Atlantic, the 1966 demo is one of the two tracks that are among the many joyful inclusions on the ARETHA box set.